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Tulip the battered flower

THE TULIP TOUCH By Anne Fine Hamish Hamilton Pounds 10.99

WHAT JAMIE SAW By Carolyn Coman Gollancz Pounds 10.99

Christmas is crisis point for the troubled families in these two excellent, absorbing novels. Both give free rein to the voices of their young narrators, making them a lot more than lightweight holiday reads.

Anne Fine's treatment of the almost over-familiar territory of the "uncontrollable" child is among the best half-dozen novels of the year. It takes the less well-trodden path of examining not how Tulip has been damaged (although we can guess at this, despairingly) but the damage she does in return. Her ever-more-imaginative cries for help are charted by Natalie, the friend who becomes her rescuer, then her victim, then her betrayer.

The slow simmer of Natalie's resentment at the adults who "make allowances" (including her own well-meaning, but preoccupied, parents) is as destructive as the fast boil of Tulip's rage and accelerating cruelty. Natalie's parents' hotel, with its veneer of hospitality and order well polished for the festive season, is an inspired setting primed to explode.

In Carolyn Coman's novel, Jamie and his mother and baby sister scrape Christmas together in an isolated caravan, on the run from his mother's violent partner. While Tulip is hemmed in by an outraged community, this family's human contacts dwindle away. They are alone with their terror, even in a crowd.

Jamie's tortured, compelling tale is one of survival, leaving the reader shaken but admiring. This is a slim volume to devour in one gulp - a swift move into a more affordable paperback is in order for both titles.

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